Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Day

December 25, 2012

Isaiah 52.7-10; John 1.1-14

+ I don’t know about you, but do you notice how this morning seems just a bit different? It feels just a bit more holy than usual, more joyful, more…glorious. I think that is what Christmas Day is all about. This sense of it all being just…a bit more holy and complete.

Yesterday, my dear friend, the poet, Marjorie Buettner shared this poem by the great Trappist monk and poet, Thomas Merton:

Make ready
for the Christ
whose smile,
like lightning
sets free
the Song
of everlasting
that now sleeps
in your paper
flesh like

For some reason, I have been clinging to that poem since yesterday. It has rung in my mind again and again.

Make ready
for the Christ
whose smile,
like lightning
sets free
the Song
of everlasting

For me, that captures perfectly this strange feeling I have experiencing this morning I was sharing last night at Christmas Eve Mass about how I LOVE a Christmas Day mass. I haven’t done one in several years and I have never done one here at St. Stephen’s.

But I love the Christmas Day mass in the same way I love the Christmas Eve service. Today, things do seem just a bit different. Things seem a little more beautiful.

And now—this morning— Christmas is here. This morning, we celebrate the Light. And we celebrate the Word. We celebrate the Light that has come to us in our collective and personal darkness. We celebrate the Light that has come to us in our despair and our fear, in our sadness and in our frustration.

And we celebrate this Word that has been spoken to us—this Word of hope. This Word that God is among us.

We celebrate this “Christ
whose smile,
like lightning
sets free
the Song
of everlasting

And as we experience Light and Word and Song—as we experience God in our midst—it does, no doubt seem most of us are feeling two emotions—the two emotions Christmas is all about—hope and joy.

Hope--in our belief that what has come to us—Christ—God made flesh—is here among us

And Joy—at the realization of that reality.

As we come forward this morning to meet with joy and hope this mystery that we remember and commemorate and make ours today, we too should find ourselves feeling these emotions at our very core. This hope and joy we are experiencing this morning comes up from our very centers. We will never fully understand how or why Jesus—God made flesh—has come to us as this little child in a stable in the Middle East, as this glorious Light, as this Word, but it has happened and, because it happened, we are a different people.

Our lives are different because of what happened that evening. This baby has taken away, by his very life and eventual death, everything we feared and dreaded. When we look at it from that perspective, suddenly we find our emotions heightened. We find that our joy is a joy like few other joys we’ve had. We find that our hope is more tangible—more real—than anything we have ever hoped in before. And that is what we are celebrating this morning.

Our true hope and true joy is not in brightly colored lights and a pile of presents until a decorated tree. Our true hope and joy is not found in the malls or the stores. Our true hope and joy does not come to us with things that will, a week from now, be a fading memory.

Our hope and joy is in that Baby who, as he comes to us, causes us to leap up with joy at his very presence. Our hope and joy is in that almighty and incredible God who would come to us, not on some celestial cloud with a sword in his hand and armies of angels flying about him. Our hope and joy is in a God who comes to us in this innocent child, born to a humble teenager in a dusty third world land. Our hope and joy is in a God who comes with a face like our face and flesh like our flesh—a God who is born, like we are born—of a human mother—and who dies like we all must die. Our hope and joy is in a God who comes and accepts us and loves us for who we are and what we are—a God who understands what it means to live this sometimes frightening uncertain life we live. But who, by that very birth, makes all births unique and holy and who, by that death, takes away the fear of death for all of us. Our hope and joy is in a God who smiles at us and when this God does, we find music being set free within us.

This is the real reason why we are joyful and hopeful on this beautiful morning. This is why we are feeling within us a strange sense of longing and fulfillment. This is why we are rushing toward our Savior who has come to visit us in what we once thought was our barrenness, our Savior who has, as we heard today in our reading from Isaiah, “bared his holy arm.”

Let the hope we feel this morning as Jesus our Savior draws close to us stay with us now and always. Let the joy we feel this morning as Jesus our Friend comes to us in love be the motivating force in how we live our lives throughout this coming year.

Jesus is here. He is in our midst this morning, as he always is. We hear his voice speaking to us in the scriptures And we feel him and sense him the bread and wine of the Eucharist that we are about the share on this altar. He is here as the Light that shines in the darkness of our lives. And he is here in the Word which he speaks to us.

But we are also more aware of him because of what we celebrating this morning. He is here in the form of an innocent, defenseless child. He is here as one of us, with a face like our face and flesh like our flesh. In him, God has visited us and is present with us. And we, in turn, are able to carry Jesus within us and share this incredible Presence with others by our very lives. Jesus is so near this morning that our very bodies and souls are rejoicing.

So, let us greet him this morning with all that we have within us. Let us greet him with songs. Let us greet him with thanksgiving. Let us greet him with all that you have within you. And let us all welcome him into the shelter of our hearts. And when we do, we will realize that “all the ends of the world shall see the salvation of our God.”

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve

December 24, 2011

Luke 2.1-20

+ I am almost embarrassed to say this. For those of you who know me, I am a consummate rebel. If everyone else likes something, I don’t (even if I really do). All of my life I have done this. I have said to myself: “I am not going to conform to what the world expects.”

And, for the most part, I can say that I have been fairly successful in doing just that in my life. And let me tell you: life is not easy for the consummate rebel.

Certainly, that’s how I’ve been about Christmas in the past. While everyone else runs around with Christmas cheer brimming over, and happy smiles on their faces, there’s me, grumpy and dour, forcing myself to buy Christmas presents at the very last minute.

But…I must be getting older or something. It hasn’t been that way this year. I almost hate to admit this, but I actually really enjoyed the secular Christmas season this year.

I have forced myself out of my rebellious state of mind and have just gone with it all. I forced myself to give one party after another at the rectory. I decorated. I bought presents. I served cider and egg nog and Christmas cookies. And, I also almost hate to admit this as well: but I made Christmas tree ornaments today.

This past week, our Senior Gin Templeton told me about Sputnik Christmas Ornaments from the late 1950s I was fascinated by it and, dare I say, obsessed for a while about these Sputnik Christmas ornaments from the 1950s. And of course, any of you who have been to the rectory and seen how I have decorated it in a very retro late 1950s/early 1960s style, I LOVE all that retro/ atomic/1950s kitsch. So, there I was today, sticking toothpicks into Styrofoam balls and painting them metallic gray.

But for me, the real joy of this season is not found in any of that. Despite all my previous curmudgeonly behavior regarding Christmas, I have always loved the theological and spiritual aspects of Christmas. And, by far, my greatest pleasure during Advent and Christmas is being in church. Ok. I’m a priest. What do you expect? Of course, I’m going to love being in church.

And the best time to be in church is always Christmas Eve, and Christmas morning.

One of life’s pleasures for me has always been Christmas Eve. And more specifically a Christmas Eve Mass. Some of my most pleasant memories are of this night and the liturgies I’ve attended over the years.

Another of life’s small pleasures is Christmas morning. I especially enjoy going to church on Christmas morning. The world seems to pristine, so new.

And one of my greatest pleasures as a priest, is to celebrate the Eucharist with you on this evening that is, in its purest sense, holy. And tomorrow morning, because it’s Sunday, I am looking forward to celebrating the Eucharist again here on Christmas morning.

The Christmas we celebrate here tonight, in this church, is a Christmas of real joy. I think we are all feeling it this evening. Something is just different on Christmas Eve. We can’t quite pin it down. We can’t quite define it. But we know it’s different tonight. We are feeling joy tonight.

But it is a joy of great seriousness as well. It is a joy that humbles us and quiets us. It is a joy filled with a Light that makes all the glittery, splashy images around us pale in comparison.

The Christmas we celebrate here tonight is not a frivolous one. It is not a light, airy Christmas. Yes, it has a baby. ‘ Yes, it has shepherds Yes, it has angels and a bright shining star. But these are not bubblegum images.

A birth of a baby in that time and in that place was a scary and uncertain event. They did not have the medical treatment we have now. hepherds were actually seen as kind of rowdy, roughnecks. Angels were not chubby little cherubs rolling about in mad abandon in some cloud-filled other-place. They were terrifying creatures—messengers of a God of Might and Wonder. And stars were often seen as omens—as something that could either bring great hope or great terror to the world. Often signs like stars in the sky were seen as omens of war and disaster.

But for us, it is not so. The event we celebrate tonight is THE event in which God breaks through to us. And whenever God beaks through, it is not some gentle nudge. It is an event that jars us, provokes us and, ultimately, changes us.

The prophet Isaiah shares in our reading from the Hebrew scriptures this evening:

“The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them a light has shined.”

For people walking in deep darkness, that glaring Light that breaks through into their lives is not the most pleasant thing in the world. It is blinding and painful. And what it exposes, sometimes, is sobering. Some of us who live in the dark do not want what to be exposed because we are so used to the dark.

Last Sunday, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we prayed together:

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself

Tonight, this whole evening is about him coming to us and making his home in us. Now, a home, as we all know, is the heart of our lives. It is where we find our sustenance. It is a place we find our comfort. Without a home, we are aimless. So, to be a home—a mansion at that—for Jesus means that he doesn’t just come for a visit.

We’re not just hosting him tonight for a Christmas party. It means, he comes to stay—to live with us. In us. That is what Jesus does during this Christmas season. He comes to us and stays with us. He dwells with us and in us. And we become the dwelling places of Christ to those around us.

That is what we are commemorating tonight. We are commemorating a “break through” from God—an experience with God that leaves us different people than we were before that encounter. What we experience is a Christmas that promises us something tangible. It promises us, and delivers, a real joy. The joy we feel tonight, the joy we feel at this Child’s birth, as the appearance of these angels, of that bright star, of that Light that breaks through into the darkness of our lives, at the fact that this Child comes to us and finds his home in us is a joy that promises us something. It is a teaser, as well, of what awaits us. It is a glimpse into the life we will have one day. It is a perfect joy that promises a perfect life.

But just because it is a joyful event, does not mean that it isn’t a serious event. What we celebrate is serious. It is an event that causes us to rise up in a joyful happiness, while, at the same time, driving us to our knees in humble adoration. It is an event that should cause us not just to return home to our brightly wrapped presents, but it should also send us out into the world to make it, in some small way, a reflection of this life-changing joy that has come into our lives. It should drive to be a true dwelling of Christ.

Tonight is one of those moments in which true joy and gladness have come upon us. God has broken through to us. Christ has come to us and is dwelling within each of us, no matter who we might be.

So, let us cling to this moment. Let make ourselves a true dwelling place for Christ so that others may know, through us, that love, that joy, that all-embracing acceptance that Christ shows us. Let us remember that Christ dwells in us always. We are his home. He will not be leaving us when we take the Christmas tree down and put away the decorations. And let this joy you feel tonight at that realization be the strength that holds us up when we need to be held.

Tonight, God has touched us. God has grasped our hands. Our hands have been laid on God’s heart. This feeling we are feeling right now is the true joy that descends upon us when we realize God has come to us in our collective darkness as a Light that will never darken.

So let us, like those shepherds, leave here this evening, with joy in our hearts, with Christ dwelling within us, And let us, like them, “glorify and praise God” for all that we have heard and seen…

Sunday, December 11, 2011

3 Advent

Gaudete Sunday

December 11, 2011

Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11;1 Thes. 5.16-24

+ Some of you might remember November 28, 1966. Well, it was on that evening, at the posh Plaza Hotel in New York City, that author Truman Capote hosted the legendary (and infamous) masked black and white ball, which has been called “the party of the century.” Capote hosted this party to celebrate the end of many several, hard years working on his biggest and most popular book, In Cold Blood. Well, not that I can ever compare myself to Truman Capote, but in these past two weeks I have hosted two parties, and before this season is over, I will have hosted three more.

There’s a reason I am doing this year. As most of you know, this past year was a horrible year for me, following my father’ death. And the last thing in the world I wanted to do last year was go to a party much less host one. Also, as you’ve heard me say many times, I am not actually not a big fan of the modern, secular Christmas season.

In fact, I really don’t like it at all. If I wasn’t priest and a Christian, I would be a true curmudgeonly Scrooge. But this year I decided to break out of the mourning hold. I thought I would overcome my frustration with the season and just go with it for a while. So, parties, parties, parties.

What I’ve discovered is that I have felt myself truly emerge from that mourning cocoon to a large extent. And one of the added pluses for me is hearing people say to me, “I love your parties! You are so hospitable. You really do go all out for your guests.” And I guess do. And I love doing it. Because doing it makes me happy.

And so I can say, on this Third Sunday in Advent, that I am feeling a sense of joy that I certainly was not feeling last year. Joy at being able to emerge fromt hat awful dark cloud of mourning and sadness and to celebrate the future. And I think it is especially appropriate today.

Today is Gaudete Sunday. Traditionally, on Gaudete Sunday, we light the pink candle on the Advent wreath. This pink candle is a sign to us that the shift has happened. Now there are more candles lit than are unlit on the wreath. The light has won out and the darkness, we are realizing, is not an eternal darkens.

Gaudete means “rejoice” and that’s exactly what we should be doing on this Sunday. We should rejoice in the light that is winning out. We should rejoice in the fact that darkness has no lasting power over us.

This Sunday sets a tone different than the one we’ve had so-far in Advent. We find that word—rejoice—ringing out throughout our scriptural readings today. It is the theme of the day. It is the emotion that permeates everything we hear in the Liturgy of the Word on this Sunday.

In our reading from the Hebrew Bible, in Isaiah, we hear

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;

In our Epistle, we find even Paul—who seems a bit, shall we say, dour at times— rejoicing. “Rejoice always,” he writes to the church at Thessalonika

This emotion of joy is something we oftentimes take for granted. Let’s face it, joy doesn’t happen often enough in our lives. It is a rare occurrence for the most part. And maybe it should be. It is certainly not something we want to take for granted. When joy comes to us, we want to let it flow through us. We want it to guide us and overwhelm us. But we often don’t think about how essential joy is to us. Joy is essential to all of us as Christians. It is one of those marks that make us who we are as Christians.

But, as we all know, there are moments. There are moments when we cannot muster joy. No matter how many parties we might plan or host or go to, no matter how much we try to break the hold the hard, difficult things of life have placed on us, it is hard sometimes to feel joy. Cultivating joy in the midst of overwhelming sorrow or pain or loneliness or depression can seems overwhelming and impossible. That’s why joy really is a discipline.

When things like sorrow or pain or loneliness or depression descend upon—and they descend upon us all—we need, in those moments, to realize that joy might not be with us in that moment, but joy always returns. We need to search deep within us for that joy that we have as Christians. And when we search for it, we can find it.

That joy often comes when we put our pains into perspective. That joy comes when we recognize that these dark moments that happen in our lives are not eternal. They will not last forever.

That, I think, is where we sometimes fail. When we are in the midst of those negative emotions in our lives, we often feel as though they will never end. We often feel as though we will always be lonely, we always be sad, we will always mourn.

When my father died, I had a sinking realization very soon afterward, that life would never be the same again—and I despaired over that. I couldn’t imagine what life would be like from that time on. But, with time, I saw that life might be changed but it is not destroyed.

As Christians, we can’t allow ourselves to be boxed in by despair. As Christians, we are forced, again and again, to look at the larger picture. We are forced to see that joy is always there, just beyond our grasp, awaiting us.

Joy is there when we realize that in the midst of our darkness, there is always light just beyond our reach. And when it comes back into our lives, it truly is wonderful… It’s not always something one is able to identify in a person. Joy doesn’t mean walking around smiling all the time. It doesn’t mean that we have force ourselves to be happy at all times in the face of every bad thing. If we do that, we become nothing more than a programmed robot or a trained puppy.

True joy come bubbling up from within us. It is a true grace—it is a gift we are given that we simply don’t ask for. It comes from a deep place and it permeates our whole being, no matter what else is going on in our lives or in the world around us. It is a joy that comes from deep within our very essence—from that place of our true selves.

Advent is, essentially, a penitential season. It is a time for us to recognize that we are slugging through the muck of our lives—a muck we are at least, in part, responsible for. But Advent is also a time for us to be able to rejoice even in the midst of that muck. It is a time for us realize that we will not be in that muck for ever. The muck doesn’t win out. The joy we carry deep within us wins out.

So, as we gather together this morning, and as we leave here this morning, let us remember the joy we feel at seeing this pink candle lit. We have made it this far. The tide has shifted. The light is winning out. The dawn is about to break upon our long dark night.

As you ponder this, as you meditate on this, as you take this with you in your hearts, pay special attention to the emotion this causes within you. Embrace that welling up of joy from deep within. And let it proclaim on your lips the words you, along the prophet Isaiah, long to say:

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;

Sunday, December 4, 2011

2 Advent

Baptism of Madisyn de la Garza

December 4, 2011

Isaiah 40.1-11; Mark 1.1-8

+ I realized the other day that, although I have referenced many films and movies in my years here at St. Stephen’s, I have never mentioned one film in particular, The Rapture.

The Rapture is a strange, independent film I saw in the early 1990s. The film tells the story of Sharon, a young Los Angeles telephone operator. She is played by Mimi Rogers, the ex-wife of Tom Cruise. Now Sharon lives a somewhat immoral disolute life. She’s involved with a man who is involved in various sundry acts. However, while at work one day, she comes into contact with a group of people who tell her that they believe, through a ahsraed dream, the Rapture is imminent—the Rapture being the return of Christ.

Although she scoffs initially, she eventually comes to accept this belief herself and actually a born-again Christian. She begins a new, very pious lifestyle, eventually marrying a man named Randy (who is played by David Dukovny, in his pre- X-Files days) and together they have a daughter. However, her husband Randy is shot and killed by a dsiguntled ex-employee, and a result, she begins to question the goodness of God. Somehow, she becomes convinved that she must wait in the desert for the coming of the Rapture, but shile there she loses patience. At her daughter's urging, she decides to hasten her and her daughter's ascendance to heaven, so she kills her daughter, but finds that she is unable to take her own life because she’s afraid she'll be condemned for committing suicide. She turns against God and becomes angry at God, resufing to believe that God is anyway good for not retutning, for allowing her to kill her own daughter, for not doing what she believes God should be doing. She confesses to what she had done to a police officer who had been watching her and she is arrested and imprisoned.

Up to this point, it seems like the film is about wacky born-again cultist whose beliefs eventually lead to murder. However, at this point, something major happens. The Rapture does in fact take place. While Sharon is sitting in her prison cell, awaiting trial, a loud trumpet blows that is heard all over the world, signaling the start of the Rapture. We see it all. The bars falling off the jail door, the four horsemen of the apocolypse, people just heading toward the trumpet calls. Finally, Sharon herself disappears and is taken to a weird, kind of purgatory-like place, just within sight of heaven. Even here, within sight of heaven, she still refuses to renounce her anger at God for what she perceives to be God’s cruelty. Her young daughter (whom she murdered) appears to her and begs her to accept God back into her heart.

“Just say you love God,” the girl beg, so she can join her husband and daughter in Heaven.

But Sharon cannot.

“You know what this means?” the girl asks, as the light fades and the darkness encourches on Sharon.

And Sharon, fully aware of what she is doing, says, “Yes” as she is swallowed up in darkness.

(Sorry that I gave away the ending of the movie). Make sure you go out and rent this happy little film for this holiday season.

But the film actually haunted me in many ways, because it was one of those films that actually addresses in a straightforward way what we talk about in this Season of the Advent. The coming of the Lord. For us, we too are awaiting Christ’s presence in our lives. We longing for Christ to come to us. We know it will happen. We may realize it might not happen necessarily (for us anyway) in some final Rapture, but, in one way or the other, it will happen, as in the day on which we die.

But, as you hear me say, again and again here at St. Stephen’s, Christ’s coming among us, that we celebrate especially during the Christmas season, happens for us in a very intimate way every time we gather here. We experience, in a very unique and wonderful way, the Presence of Christ whenever we gather together at this altar and share these common and very simple and vital gifts of bread and wine.

No matter what you believe about how Jesus is present to us in the Eucharist, he is present. He does come to us and is present with us here. He does come to us here and we do feel him present—in the bread, in the wine, in our scripture readings, in the presence of those who gather with us and who kneel beside us at the rail.

Now, as you know, I make no secret of my belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I truly believe that Jesus is present here in a unique and beautiful way in the bread and the wine we share with each other. I also believe that Jesus is uniquely present even in the reserved sacrament we place here in the ambry.

There is a reason we keep the sanctuary light lit before the aumbry. It reminds us that Jesus is present here in a special way. I love driving past St. Stephen’s at night and seeing the deep red glow of the sanctuary light shining through the windows. It is a very visible and meaningful reminder to me that Jesus is present here in a very real way.

I’m not a big stickler on explaining how Jesus is present in the bread and wine. All I know for certain is that each Sunday, when we gather here, we witness a mystery. We, together, participate in something that we might not understand and we might not fully appreciate. But it is, as we all realize, important and wonderful and beautiful.

In what we do here at the altar, we experience Jesus. We see Jesus, we feel Jesus, we taste Jesus. In a sense, what we do here is fulfillment of what the prophet Isaiah foresaw:

“He will feed his flock like a shepherds;
he with gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.”

So, in a very real way, the anxious waiting we are doing during this season of Advent is like the anxious waiting we should do when coming to this altar. It’s all about anticipation. It is all about our deepest hopes and desires being realized. And they are realized—in Christ. And because they are realized in Christ, we find them realized whenever we encounter Christ.

In our Gospel reading for today, we find John the Baptist appearing the wilderness. He, of course, is the person the prophet Isaiah speaks of in our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures.

“Prepare the way of the Lord,” both Isaiah proclaims.

“Make his paths straight.”

To a large extent, that is what we are called to do in this Advent season and throughout all our lives in Christ. We are called to prepare the way of the Lord. We are called to prepare. We do this by living our lives with a certain integrity. We do this by being aware that God is always present with us, always loving us, always accepting us. And we do this by realizing that, at any moment, we will be called to live out that life of love and acceptance to others. We realize that, in our lives as followers of Jesus, we have been transformed.

By the very fact that we were baptized, we have been transformed. When we rose out of those waters—and in a few moments when Madisyn is baptized and rises out of those waters—we were transformed and born anew.

Whenever we meet Christ, we emerge transformed. We are not the same people were before our baptisms and, each week when we encounter Jesus in the Eucharist and in each other, we realize that we are not the same people we were before Communion. We are a people challenged to then go out and share our Baptismal lives and this Communion with others in whatever way we can. What we are longing for in this season is not something vague and distant.

It is not something so mysterious that we can’t fathom it. Rather, what we long for is, truly, fulfillment. It is the fulfillment of all that seems to be missing in us. It is the fulfillment of our anxieties and our frustrations and our depressions and our hopelessness.

In the Eucharist, in this bread and wine, in this aumbry, in this unique and real Presence of Jesus that we experience here, we find truly that God’s glory is not out there somewhere—in some distant heaven.

Rather, God in Jesus, has come to us and remains among us in a very real and tangible way. In this Eucharist and in our lives as followers of Jesus, God’s glory truly does dwell with us. In God’s Presence among us, we realize, if we truly open ourselves to this experience, that our frustrations, our depressions, all of our spiritual and psychological pains have been healed and our longings have been realized. We don’t need to look anywhere else than right here.

Yes, there might be a Rapture one day. Yes, there that Day might be amazing and powerful with trumpets sounding and cars falling from jail cells. And yes, even when it happens, there will be people saying that they cannot heed the invitation to join in that glorious day. But for us, as followers of Jesus, for us reborn in the waters of the baptism and prepared in a special way for the coming of Christ into our midst, whatever might happen on that day will only be a fulfillment of what we have bee doing along, here at this altar.

What we do here then at the altar is important. It is vital to our understanding of ourselves as Christians. It is a wonderful and glorious mystery that we shouldn’t try to pin down and analyze too deeply. We should rather accept it and delight in it and let it fill us and fulfill us.

In these days of Advent, as we prepare to remember Jesus’ first coming among us, our time at the altar should take on special meaning and precedence for us.We should give true and deep thanks for the opportunity to have Jesus come to us in such a unique and wonderful way. And as we come to the altar, with our joy bubbling up from within us, with our anxieties and fears and depressions soothed by the healing balm of this bread and wine, of the healing Presence of our God, we too are able to proclaim, the prophet Isaiah, with honesty and truth,

The glory of the Lord has truly been revealed to us…Here is our God!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

1 Advent

November 27, 2011

1 Corinthians 1.3-9; Mark 13.24-37

+ For some reason, I want to say this morning; Happy New Year. I know that sounds crazy and strange on this last Sunday in November. But, for us, it is New Year. A whole new liturgical year begins today. We are now—on this first Sunday of Advent—in what is called Year B in the liturgical cycle. There are three years in the liturgical cycle—Year A, Year B, Year C. And through those three years we explore various scriptures and themes in our Sunday liturgies.

For us Christians, it’s kind of nice to have our own New Year. It’s nice to have a time to begin anew in a more quiet and contemplative way. It is nice to have a new beginning in a prayerful way.

And, as we begin this season of Advent, we find that it does feel like the beginning of something. Something has changed. There’s been a turning. And I’m not just saying this because the Christmas decorations are up and we hear Christmas carols in restaurants and stores.

We are—on this First Sunday in Advent—looking to the future and to all it holds for us. I think one of the things we as Christians know is that something awaits us. Now, we might not know for certain what that “something” is. We can’t articulate it. We can’t define it. We can’t quantify it.

But we know “something” good and glorious and beautiful awaits us. Call it a kind of spiritual instinct. Call it the goal toward which we are all working. It lies there ahead of it in the foggy darkness of our future.

This time of Advent is the time in which we wait for that glorious “something.” It is the time in which are watching for that wonderful “something.”

In our Gospel reading for today, we find the rallying cry of Advent—the word that captures perfectly what we should be doing during this season. It’s just a simple phrase, and we it in two different ways:

“Keep alert.”

“Keep awake.”

Jesus says it just those two ways in our reading from Mark: It seems simple enough.

“Keep alert” and “keep awake.”

But is it simple? Our job as Christians is sometimes no more than this. It is simply a matter of staying awake, of being attentive or being alert. Our lives as Christians are sometimes simply responses to being spiritually alert. For those of us who are tired, who are worn down by life, who spiritually or emotionally fatigued, our sluggishness sometimes manifests itself in our spiritual life and in our relationship with others. When we become impatient in our watching, we sometimes forget what it is we are watching for. We sometimes, in fatigue, fail to see.

For us, that “something” that we are waiting for, that we keeping alert for, is none other than that glorious day of Christ, that we hear St. Paul talk about in his epistle this morning. That glorious day of Jesus comes when, in our attentiveness, we see the rays of the light breaking through to us in our tiredness and in our fatigue. It breaks us through to us in various ways. We, who are in this sometimes foggy present moment, peering forward, sometimes have this moments of wonderful spiritual clarity. Those moments are true moments of being alert—of being spiritually awake. Sometimes we have it right here, in church, when we gather together.

I have shared with each of you at times when those moments sometimes come to me. They sometimes come to me here at this altar. One of the most common ways they happen for me is when I have broken that break and we are singing the Agnus Dei—the Lamb of God. As we sing, and I have had moments in which I look down at that broken Bread and that chalice, I realize: yes, this IS the Lamb of God. This is Jesus. This is the spiritual goal of my life. This IS the Day of Our Lord Jesus. Jesus has truly come to us this day. This is what it means to be awake.

Certainly, in a very real sense, today—this First Sunday of Advent— is a precursor of that one glorious day of the Lord Jesus that St. Paul talks about. But the rays of that glorious future day also break through to us now when, in our attentiveness, we recognize Jesus in here at the altar and in those we serve as Christians. Those rays of the Day of Christ break through when we can see Jesus in all those we meet and serve. In this beautiful Sarum blue Advent season, we are reminded that the day of Christ is truly about dawn upon us. The rays of the bright sun-lit dawn are already starting to lighten the darkness of our lives. We realize, in this moment, that, despite all that has happened, despite the disappointments, despite the losses, despite the pain each of us has had to bear, the ray of Christ’s Light breaks through to us in that darkness and somehow, makes it all better.

But this is doesn’t happen in an instant. Oftentimes that light is a gradual dawning in our lives. Oftentimes, it happens gradually so we can adjust to it, so it doesn’t blind us. Sometimes, our awakening is in stages, as though waking from a deep, slumbering sleep.

Our job as Christians is somewhat basic. I’m not saying it’s easy. But I am saying that it is basic. Our job, as Christians, especially in this Advent time, is to be alert. To be awake. Spiritually and emotionally. And, in being alert, we must see clearly. We cannot, when that Day of Christ dawns, be found sleeping.

Rather, when that Day of our Lord Jesus dawns, we should greet it joyfully, with bright eyes and a clear mind. We should run toward that dawn as we never have before in our lives. We should let the joy within us—the joy we have hid, we have tried to kill—the joy we have not allowed ourselves to feel—come pouring forth on that glorious day. And in that moment, all those miserable things we have been dealt—all that loss, all that failure, all that unfairness—will dissipate like a bad dream on awakening.

“Keep alert,” Jesus says to us.

“Keep awake.”

It’s almost time. Keep awake because that “something” you have been longing for all your spiritual life is about to happen. It is about to break through into your life. And it is going to be glorious.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Christ the King Sunday

Transgender Remembrance Day/Stewardship Sunday
November 20, 2011

Matthew 25.31-46

+ The other day I was doing something very uncharacteristic of me: I was complaining. I actually don’t complain much, but I did this week. I complained about the fact that we have been having a series of what I call “theme Sundays” recently here at St. Stephen’s. Last week we had United Thank Officering Sunday. A few weeks ago we had New Member Sunday. And a few weeks before that we had Jubilee Sunday. It seems like every Sunday, we are commemorating something else. Why can’t we just have a nice, quiet, regular Sunday again?

Well, this week I complained because we have a triple theme. It is, first and foremost, Christ the King Sunday—or as the more inclusively minded might call it—the Reign of Christ Sunday. I preached last year about how the Reign of Christ just doesn’t carry the same weight as Christ the King. So I’m sticking with Christ the King Sunday. We also have Stewardship Sunday today. We will gather today after the service for our Stewardship Sunday dinner, where the members of our church will receive their Pledge Cards and their Time and Talent Cards. And we have Transgender Remembrance Day, which is also very important and I also will discuss in a moment.

And just when I complain about the fact that it is another theme, I realize: “no, it really isn’t.” Each of these is important in its own right and they tie very well into what every Sunday is about. Christ the King, Stewardship and Transgender Remembrance are all about our faith journey as followers of Jesus. And we, as the Church need do need to commemorate each of them.

First, Christ the King Sunday. It is the last Sunday in that very long, green season of Pentecost. Today, for the Church, it is New Year’s Eve. The old church year of Sundays ends today. The new church year begins next Sunday, on the First Sunday of Advent. So, what seems like an ending today is renewed next week, with the coming of Advent, in that revived sense of longing and expectation that we experience in Advent.

Second, it is Stewardship Sunday. Stewardship, for us, as Episcopalians, means more than that popular Pledge Sunday. It is more than just discussing how people should give money to the Church. OK. Yes, we all should give to the Church. We should tithe—we should give our ten percent. But, more importantly, we must give of ourselves. We must give back to the Church by doing ministry, by contributing of the time we have been given and the different and varying talents each of us has been blessed with. And on this Stewardship Sunday, we hear from Jesus a sermon that makes us frown, no doubt.

Today, we hear Jesus tell us that story of the sheep and the goats. Now, I actually love this parable—not because of its threat of punishment (which everyone gets hung up on), not because of its judgment. I love this story because there is something beautiful and subtle going on just beneath the surface, if you take the moment to notice. And that subtle aspect of this story is this:

If you notice, the reward is given not to people who work for the reward. The reward is not given to people who help the least of their brethren because they know they will gain the reward. The reward is granted to those who help the least of their brethren simply because the least need help. The reward is for those who have no regard or idea that a reward awaits them for doing such a thing. The least of our brethren are the ones who are hungry, who are thirsty, who are naked, who are sick and who are in prison.

I think this ties in beautifully to our own ideas of stewardship. Why do we give, we must ask ourselves? Why do we give our ten percent.? And why do we give of our time and talent? Do we give because we think we’re going to get a reward for our giving? Or do we give because by giving we know it goes for a greater reward than anything we ourselves could get?

Finally, we realize that Jesus, in our Gospel reading today, speaks to us profoundly on this Transgender Remembrance Day. Transgender Remembrance Day is always celebrated on November 20, which is is a day to memorialize those who have been killed as a result of what is called “transphobia” or the “hatred or fear of transgender and gender non-conforming people.”

The Transgender Day of Remembrance was founded in 1998 by Gwendolyn Ann Smith, a transgender graphic designer, columnist, and activist, to memorialize the murder of Rita Hester, a transgender African American woman who was murdered in Allston, MA on November 28, 1998. For us at St. Stephen’s this is important because we, in our dedication to Stewardship, know that be good Stewards, to be good followers of Jesus, we need to be good neighbors. And to be good neighbors is to be compassionate and loving and accepting, in just the same way our God is compassionate and loving and accepting. It means that when we see people in need or suffering, we are moved to our very core. When we see people abused and neglected and marginalized and, like Rita Hester and the hundreds of other transgender people, murdered, we must step forward and do what we can to stop it and prevent it.

In our Gospel reading today, we find that the Kingdom of God is prepared for those who have been good stewards. It is prepared for those who have been mindful of what has been given to them and have been mindful of those around them in need. For us, we need to realize that the Kingdom is prepared for us as well. It is prepared for us who have sought to be good stewards without any thought of reward. It is prepared for us who have simply done what we are called to do as followers of Jesus.

For us, in our own society, we find that these same terms found in Jesus’ parable have a wider definition. Hungry for us doesn’t just mean hungry for food. It means hungry for love, for healing, for wholeness.

Thirsty doesn’t just mean for water. Thirsty for us means thirsty for fairness or justice or peace.

Naked doesn’t just mean without clothing. It means, for us, to be stripped to our core, to be laid bare spiritually and emotionally and materially.

To be sick, doesn’t necessarily mean to be sick with a disease in our bodies. It is means to be sick in our hearts and in our relationships with others.

And we all know that the prisons of our lives sometimes don’t necessarily have walls or bars on the doors. The prisons of our lives are sometimes our fears, our prejudices, our very selves And Transgender people definitely know what prisons are. They understand that personal prisons take on deeper meaning.

To not go out and help those who need help is to be arrogant, to be selfish, to be headstrong. To not do so is to turn our backs on following where Jesus leads us. Because Jesus leads us into that place wherein we must love and love fully and give and give freely—of ourselves and of what we have been given.

This past week, there was a wonderful article in the Boston University publication, Today. The article deals with BU’s new Episcopal chaplain, Fr. Cameron Partridge. Fr. Cameron is a transgender person and he talks freely in this article about what that means as a human being, as an Episcopalian, as a priest and as a Christian. I have made copies of the article, so please take them after the service today. Fr. Cameron is quoted as saying:

“It feels like, in the Episcopal Church, there’s more a sense of resolve to just be who we are…a sense of all people being welcomed and able to become the people God created them to become…”

I like that because that is definitely what we have been striving to do here at St. Stephen’s. We practice our radical hospitality to everyone who comes through our doors. And, I think, we accept everyone who comes through those doors fully. Here, we not only welcome people, but I think we allow people to be the people God created them to be. And whoever that might, we know they are beautiful, because God finds them and all of us, beautiful. Fr. Cameron goes on to say,

“My hope is that people just sort of respond to one another and to me as just human beings.”

Again, that brings us back to Jesus’ parable. The meaning of this story is this: If you do these things—if you feed the hungry, if you give drink to the thirsty, if you welcome the stranger, if you clothe the naked, if you visit the sick and imprisoned—if you simply “respond to one another as just human beings”—if you do these things without thought of reward, but do them simply because you, as a Christian, are called to do them, the reward is yours.

As Christians, we should haven’t to think about doing any of those things. They should be like second nature to us. We should be doing them naturally, instinctively. For those of us who are hungry or thirsty, who feel like strangers, who are naked, sick and imprisoned—and at times, we have been in those situations—we find Christ in those rays of hope that break through into our lives.

It is very similar to the hope we are clinging to in this moment as we enter Advent—that time in which the light of Christ is seen breaking into the encroaching darkness of our existence. And we—in those moments when we feed the hungry, when we give drink to the thirsty, when we welcome the stranger, when we clothe the naked, when we visit the sick and imprisoned—in those moments, we become that light in the darkness, that hope in someone else’s life. We embody Christ when we become the conduits of hope.

So, as we celebrate the end of this liturgical year and set our expectant eyes on the season of Advent, let us not just be filled with hope. Let us be a true reflection of Christ’s hope to this world. Let us be the living embodiment of that hope to those who need hope. And in doing so, we too will hear those words of assurance to us: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for….”

Sunday, November 6, 2011

All Saints Sunday

November 6, 2011

1 John 3.1-3

+ In case you might have noticed it, today is a special Sunday. All Sundays are special. But today is even a bit more special, if you haven’t noticed. Out in the Narthex, we have the All Saints altar. We have the photos and mementoes and the Book of Remembrance, with the names written in it of all our departed loved ones. In here, we have the white paraments on the altar, and of course I’m all decked out in white as well. And we are celebrating even a bit more than we usually do. Which, as you all know, I LOVE to do. I love to celebrate. I will look for any little opportunity to celebrate.

Well, today we have plenty to celebrate.

First, we are celebrating the saints. We are celebrating all those saints that we know of, like the Virgin Mary and our own St. Stephen. We celebrate those saints because they are held up to us as examples of how to live this sometimes difficult life we live as Christians. And it is hard to be a Christian sometimes. It is hard, as we all know, to follow Jesus, and to do what Jesus tells us to do—to love. It is hard to be, as John says in our first reading for today, the children of God, as Jesus himself is a Child of God. The saints have showed this fact to us. They have showed us how to be these very children of God. We are also celebrating the saints we have personally known.

We are celebrating the saints we have known who have come into our own lives—those people who have taught us about God and shown us that love does win out, again and again. The saints in our own lives are those who have done it, who have shown us that we can be successful in following Jesus, even if they weren’t always successful at time sin their own lives. My favorite saints—both those celebrated by the larger church and those I have known in my own personal life—are the ones who were not, by any means, perfect, who failed, who messed up occasionally. I like them because I’m like them. I too have messed up. I too have failed. I too have failed in following Jesus and loving others. But what those saints show us is that it’s all right. When we fail, we just get up again, brush ourselves off and keep going. And what they show us more than anything else is that when we fail to love, we need to live even more and somehow, it is made right.

The other part of this morning that we are celebrating is the future saints in our midst. The future saints? Who could those possibly be? We are the future saints. Today, we are welcoming four new members into our midst. Together, with them, we will strive to follow Jesus, to love God and each other and to serve those we encounter. And these four will be future saints. That’s how we should look at them. And ourselves.

And we are celebrating another future saint, Braxton Haugen, who is being baptized today. As we gather in a few moments around the font and celebrate the Sacrament of New Birth, we realize that what we are celebrating at that moment is the birth of yet another future saint in our midst. I’m sure there will be moments in his life when these words will haunt Whitney and Barney. There will no doubt be moments when Braxton might not seem like much a saint. But, again, that’s the ways saints sometimes work. Saints often are hidden from us. Saints often are the ones we least expect to be saints.

And that, is truly, why we celebrate the saints. That is why we celebrate the saints with the different commemorations we have of them at our Wednesday night Eucharists throughout the year. And that is why we celebrate them especially on Sundays like today.

We celebrate the saints because they lead the way for us. They show us how to live this sometimes difficult life as Christians. They show us in their successes and they show us in their failures. And we celebrate the saints as well because we too are the saints. We are the future saints, who will one day be gathered around the altar of the Lamb, where we will partake of that glory without end.

This past Wednesday, at our All Souls Requiem Mass here at St. Stephen’s, I mentioned sometimes I mention in many of the sermons I preach at funerals. I mention that “veil” that separates us from those who have gone on before us. I mentioned that that veil is actually a very thin one, even though it often seems like a very thick curtain at times. But there are moments when that veil is sort of lifted and we can see that very little actually separates us from those saints who have gone on.

This morning, we are actually able to see that veil lifted. We will see it lifted in a few short moments when we baptize Braxton into the fellowship of all the saints. And we will see it again lifted when we gather at the altar to celebrate the Eucharist.

Both of these acts are not isolated acts we do, here in St. Stephen’s Church in north Fargo on a cold, wet morning in November of 2011. Every time we do them, we do them with every Christian on this earth who also celebrate them. And when we celebrate the Eucharist, all we are doing is joining, for this limited time, the worship that is going on in heaven for all eternity.

So, let us—the future saints of God—truly celebrate today. Let us celebrate the saints who have gone on and who are still with us in various ways. Let us celebrate the saints who are joining us here at St. Stephen’s as fellow members and fellow ministers and fellow followers of Jesus. And let us celebrate our newest saint-to-be, Braxton Haugen, as he is washed in the waters of life, as he is sealed by the Holy Spirit and he is marked as Christ’s own…forever.

And, so, I will now asked the parents and godparents of Braxton to bring him forward…

Sunday, October 30, 2011

20 Pentecost

October 30, 2011

Matthew 23.1-12

+ A few weeks ago, right here, in St. Stephen’s, one of our Moravian guests stopped me and said, very nicely: “You know, I will never call you Father.”

“Okay,” I said.

He then proceeded to quote our Gospel reading this morning.

“And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.”

I then proceeded to tell him what I tell everyone who has a problem with this issue: “It doesn’t matter to me what I am called.”

And it really doesn’t. I’ve never really insisted on anyone calling me “Father.” I use more out of convenience than anything any thing else. After all, I—and all of us as Episcopalians—do come from a tradition in which the male priest can be called Father—and, in more modern times, the female priest as “Mother”. Some people find either title uncomfortable, for various and very understandable reasons. And I hope that if they do find it uncomfortable, they don’t use it.

The sad fact is, there aren’t a whole lot of equally acceptable titles for clergy out there. “Pastor” just doesn’t cut it with me—at least not here where every Protestant clergy person is “Pastor.” Also, Pastor is not a traditionally Episcopal title.

And Reverend is grammatically wrong. We don’t call a priest “Reverend Jamie” anymore than we call a judge, “Honorable Janet.”.

Of course, those are, for the most part, my issues and I can’t control what people will call me or not call me. Nor do I even want to. And I will remind people who have issues with calling priests “Father” or Mother” that it is their issue as well.

Recently, I followed a long drawn-out discussion on this issue on the House of Bishop/House of Deputies listerserv. The discussion got almost “shrill” at some point, and I ended up just not reading any more posts. This doesn’t come as a surprise, I’m sure, to anyone here who knows me, but I have a problem when people “command” me that I should do something. One of the reasons I am actually quite frustrated over the issue is that I have known those clergy who have abandoned their titles and demand from people that they be called by their first name. What I have seen often in these cases is that those same people who reject what they see as signs of authority, defeat their own cause. They actually, by their rejection, attempt to exercise control over their congregation by essentially dictating how they should be perceived.

As my colleague, Fr. Jared Cramer, summarizes it:

"No, I'm not hierarchical! Stop seeing me that way, I command you!"

Of course, that’s not true of every clergyperson who uses their first name. But many of the clergy that I have known personally who essentially demand it certainly seem, in my experience, to have definite authority issues. Some clergy who demand that people call them by their first name do so as an exercise of power that is at least as bad as what they claim to oppose.

Yes, I understand, as I said, that some people perceive the title of Father as some kind of male hierarchical issue. But many of those of those same people have an even bigger issue calling a woman priest “Mother.” And don’t even get me started if the reasons for not using those titles are based on some kind of anti-Catholic bias. That definitely does not cut it with me.

And as I have said a million times, none of this is really much of an issue for me. Call me Jamie, call me “Father Jamie,” call me whatever makes you comfortable.

But, I get very tired and very impatient when we spin our wheels on things like this, when we could be using our energy on much more important things like loving God and loving others and doing the ministry each of us has been called to do.

Still, if someone, like that Moravian has an issue calling me “Father,” I understand. But I do have an issue when people use the scripture we heard in today’s gospel as their basis for not callings someone “Father.” Is Jesus really telling us we should call no one “Father” other than God? Of course not. He would not have a problem with us calling our own fathers “Father,” Nor would he have a problem with us calling our Jewish clergy “Rabbi.” Or any of us who are teachers, ‘teachers or instructors.

We should not approach what Jesus is saying from that literalist point of view. He is telling people not to call hypocrites like the Pharisees “Father,” nor should we call anyone by such a term we should be reserving for God. The Pharisees were fond of placing burdens on people that were intolerable. Jesus, on the other hand, offers something much easier. He offers the yoke that is easy and the burden which is light.

Pharisees longed for things like titles, and the respect and the honor that went with them. For them, these issues of titles were a BIG deal. They would have loved to have spun their wheels, and wasted their energies debating such issues. Titles, after all, were a way for them to manipulate people and to coerce them. And titles puffed them up with pride.

We have all known people outside the church who are attached to their titles. We have known people who define themselves by the letters behind their names, or the titles like “doctor” in front of their names. Jesus, by his very example, shows us what a true servant leader is. He shows the example of what teachers, rabbis, priests and ministers and fathers and mothers should be.

A literalist view of not calling anyone father or teacher or rabbi would be ridiculous. To say that Scripture prohibits the use of “father” or “teacher” is a very selective view of scripture. It’s a way to cut and paste scripture and to manipulate it for our own means. It is a way to be more concerned about the letter of the law, than the spirit of the law. And to do so would cause us to have to ignore all those other references in scripture in which the terms “Father” or “teacher” are used in a positive way.

Even Paul refers to himself as "father" in his first letter to the Corinthians. Jesus refers to Nicodemus as a teacher of the Jews in John 3. John 8:37-39 and Luke 16:24-25 both have Abraham referred to as father, and this use is not condemned by Jesus. In his letter to the Romans [4:16-18] Paul mentions Abraham as the spiritual father of us all.

So the term "father" is clearly not a problem for Jesus or for his closest followers. The problem, as I have said, is when "father" replaces God. ”Father” becomes an issue when we give the authority to that hypocritical religious leader we call “father” who claims the authority that belongs to only God. And here is where there is some validity to the condemnation Jesus makes in today’s Gospel. If a priest misuses a title like “Father” so they can act or think in a superior way, if they use such a title to manipulate their role (and let me tell you, I have known those priests as well), then I would say that, in such a case, they come under Jesus’ condemnation here.

If, however, the term is used for someone who is a caring and compassionate elder and father to the people in their care, I don't think that would have been an issue for Jesus.

The point of all of us this, is course, essentially, what we were talking about when Jesus was using the Roman coin for a illustration. Render to God, what is God’s. Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But don’t mix the two up. Don’t call someone Father if by Father you are giving them the authority reserved only to God.

For us, the matter is essentially one that will not cause most of us to lose sleep. Most of us get this. We understand this. We understand that what is God’s is God’s. Few of us, I seriously doubt, would give to any human being the honor meant for God. And if any priest came along demanding to be called “Father” or “Mother” out of puffed up arrogance, let me tell you, they would be put down to size pretty quickly here at St. Stephen’s. We know all the distinction in all of this.

Our Gospel reading for today really is about equality. Those who think of themselves as better will be humbled. And those who think they are not worth anything, will be lifted up and cared for. This is how the God’s Kingdom works. And this is what we, who are following Jesus, are striving to make happen. We are striving for the equality. We are striving to put people on the same level.

So, let us do just that. Let us, in our following of Jesus, strive for that equal ground of the Kingdom in our day. Let us love each other, fully. And let us look at each other as equals, as ministers working together, side by side and shoulder to shoulder.

This is what it means to follow Jesus. And this is what it means to serve each other in Jesus’ name.

As for me, I am Jamie. To some I am Father Jamie. To some I am just Jamie. I am a priest. I am a Christian. And I am a minister, just like every single one of us here this morning, striving, sometimes failing, but always trying. None of us better. None of us less. All of us equal, serving each other and God in whatever God has called us.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

19 Pentecost

October 23, 2011

Matthew 22.34-46

+ Occasionally, we who preach realize that we are putting ourselves out there sometimes We are exposing ourselves for the whole world when we get up here to preach and share. And for those of us who preach regularly, we not only expose ourselves emotionally, but we also run the risk of repeating ourselves regularly. Or, maybe worse than all, we run the risk of the preaching the same thing over and over again, only in slightly different ways.

Now, luckily, being at a Total Ministry congregation like St. Stephen’s, I get a little pressure taken off me occasionally. With Sandy preaching once a month, I find that even if I am preaching the same thing, she comes in with a different voice and a different way of preaching and expounding. And although I think we believe pretty much the same things in regard to our Christian faith and how we share that as Christians, she has her own unique way of expressing that. And I am thankful for that fact. I know that we all here at St. Stephen’s.

Still, the fact remains. When I preach, I am not very complex. I have no fancy theological agenda behind any of my preaching. My message is very consistent—for better or for worse. And my message is this, in case you’ve been totally asleep during my sermons over the past three years and might have missed it: The theme of every sermon is: love. Again and again, it’s love.

Now, I once was scolded a bit—this was at another congregation, mind you—for preaching too much about love.

“You always preach about love,” this parishioner told me.

I paused, nodded and then simply replied, “Just like Our Lord.” Which, let me tell you, she didn’t appreciate hearing.

But the fact remains that this is essentially all Jesus preached about as well. The gist of everything Jesus said or did was based solidly in what we hear him summarize in this morning’s Gospel. Every sermon and parable he preached, was based on what we heard today. Every miracle, and even that final act on the cross, was based solidly on what we heard this morning.

In today’s Gospel he is clear. Which commandment is the greatest? he is asked. And he replied: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love you neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

He can’t get any clearer, as far as I’m concerned. And it is these two commands, both of which are solidly and unashamedly based in love, that he again and again professes.

Last week in my sermon, I mentioned the fact that Jesus, like all good, pious Jewish men, was required to the pray the Shema every day. The Shema is the prayer all Jewish men were required to pray each day on waking. The Shema is the first Commandment:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

Every day of his adult life, Jesus prayed this prayer. It was the basis of his entire spiritual life. And this commandment, along with the commandment to love others, is the basis for his entire teaching. When he says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” we can also add the Gospel. The Gospel, along with the law and the prophets, is based on these commandments. And so is our entire faith as Christians. I don’t think I can get any clearer on this.

I hear so often from Christians—not a whole lot of Episcopalians, but other Christians—that their faith as Christian is based solely on accepting Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. I have no problem with that. in actuality. Our Baptismal promises in the Book of Common Prayer are based on accepting Jesus as our Savior as well. In the Baptismal promises asked of a person about to be baptized (or their parents and godparents if they are too young) is that all-important question: “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?” And, of course, we do.

But, for Jesus, the real heart of the matter is not in such professions of faith. He never commands us to make such statements for salvation. What he does command us to do again and again, to love. To love God. And to love one another. And when we fail to love, we fail to be Christians. Any time we fail in these two commandments, we fail to be Christians. We turn away from following Jesus and we turn away from all that it means to be a Christian. I think the organized Church sometimes misses this fact. And we, as Christians, sometimes miss this fact as well.

We sometimes think: maybe this is too simple. Love God, love others. It’s too simple. Well, first of all: it is not. It is not easy to love God. It is not easy to love Someone who is, for the most part, invisible to us. And it is not easy to love others. I don’t need to tell anyone here this morning that is sometimes very hard to love others. So, it is not too simple.

But we still want something more occasionally. And when we do, we find ourselves making confessional statements, like putting a statement such as accepting Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior as the be-all and end-all of our faith. By the way, it is not the be-all and end-all of our faith. And nowhere does he command us to accept him as our personal Lord and Savior, though I hope we all do strive personally to do so.

We also fall into the trap of depending on things like dogma, or the Law, or Canons (or Church Laws), or any of the other rules that define it all for us specifically. The fact is, all of those things, confessional statements, dogmas, church laws or any of those complicated rules, are pointless if they are not based on these two laws of loving God and loving others. If anyone wants to know what Christians believe and who we are, these two Laws are it. They define us. They guide and direct us. And when we fail to do them, they convict us and they judge us.

So, yes, I know I am guilty of preaching the same thing all the time. But I do unashamedly. I do so proudly. I do so without any sense of remorse. Because all I am doing when I preach about loving God and loving others, is what Jesus did. I am following Jesus when I preach those laws and I strive to live those laws in my life, as a priest, helping others to do that as well.

So, let us love unashamedly. Let us love without limit. Let us love radically. Let the love that guides us and directs and, yes judges us and convicts us, be the one motivating factor in our lives. Let it be the foundation and basis of each ministry we are called to do. Let love—that radical, all-encompassing, all-accepting love—be what drives us. And let us—each of us—be known to everyone by our love.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Thanksgiving for Episcopal-Moravian Full Communion

A Celebration of Holy Eucharist in Thanksgiving for Full Communion between the Moravian Church and the Episcopal Church
Thursday, October 20, 2011
St. Stephen's Episcopal Church

John 17.6a,15-23

+ I feel real joy tonight, on our last evening of celebrating Full Communion between the Moravian Church and the Episcopal Church. These last five weeks have truly been joyful. I think all of us who have participated have found ourselves pondering the differences between our particular congregations and our denominations.

And there are differences. I think we’ve kind of joked among ourselves about those differences. I still remember with a bit humor the look on those Moravians’ faces the night of our Episcopal Class here at St. Stephen’s and how shocked all of you were by how outspoken us Episcopalians can be. That’s just who we are.

And I know that we Episcopalians were very impressed by the Love Feast last week, in which, right in the middle of the worship service, we paused to eat together.

But differences make us unique and the differences between us, I think, only show for us that diversity that we get to celebrate. What I have especially enjoyed is celebrating what we have in common. And what we have in common is a deep, almost driving longing to serve God and to serve others. Each of us do that in the worship we do, and in the service and the minsisrties we give to others. We do this as followers of Jesus.

And it is Jesus who really makes us one. In Jesus we find those differences between us blurred. And in Jesus we find those similarities between us highlighted.

In our Gospel reading for tonight, we hear Jesus pray,

“The glory you have given me I have given to them, so that they may be one…”

Tonight, and over these past few weeks, we are celebrating that glory that has been given to us. We are rejoicing in that oneness that comes to followers of Jesus who strive to love God and love others. In Christ, we are one. And that, ultimately, when all has been said and done, is all that matters.

Of course, the celebration doesn’t need to end here, tonight. This, hopefully, opens the door for future opportunities of shared ministry and shared celebration. My hope tonight is that we WILL be one, as Christ calls to be. We will be one in our service to others and in our service to God. And that we will be one in striving for those goals of making known to others that incredible love of God.

So, as we go from here, let us go with smiles on our faces. Let us go with joy in our hearts. And let us go with the knowledge that we, together, are doing what Jesus called us to do. As we heard Jesus say in our Gospel reading tonight, we pray that we may “become truly one, so that the world may know that [God] has sent Christ and that [God] loves us as [God] loves [Christ].”

Sunday, October 16, 2011

18 Pentecost

October 16, 2011

Matthew 22.15-22

+ I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find myself living a dual life. I guess it’s easy for me to do. On one hand, I have this life as a priest. People see me wearing my collar and they know, for good or bad, that I’m one of THEM. I am one of those PRIESTS. They might not even know fully what a priest is. But they know it’s someone…vaguely religious. And living like that can be exhausting sometimes. It’s sort of like living in a fishbowl. People watch you a little more closely when you’re a priest. These priests can be kind of mysterious to people. And some priests I know really like to perpetuate that image.

As I said, it can be a bit exhausting. Because there are certain expectations that come with such an image—expectations I am not always able to live up to. I think some people who see that the person wearing the collar is “religious” should also be “pious.” And I’m not always pious. I don’t need to tell anyone here.

But there are other times, when the collar comes off, that the “pressure” to be “religious” and pious are not there. It’s easy to fall into that dual life.

When the collar’s on, I’m the priest. When it’s off, I’m not. Gladly, it doesn’t really work that way. Yes, I know priests who really do live their lives like that. They turn their priesthood on and off like a switch.

But for me, I’m always a priest. With and without collar I am always a priest. Yes, even when I’m at Monte’s on HoDo or any other place.

And, more importantly, I am always a Christian. I never get to turn that on and off. But…there are sometimes moments when I wish could. There are moments—sometimes—when I wish I could just be a secular person who didn’t have to weigh everything I do by the standards of being a progressive inclusive Anglo-Catholic Episcopal priest.

Sometimes I envy those people who can do that, who can just live life without having to think about the spiritual and religious and moral consequences of their actions. Or to use the terms from our Gospel reading today, it’s refreshing sometimes to simply render the things that are God’s to God and to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.

In our Gospel reading we find Jesus being confronted by the Herodians and the Pharisees, both whom are enemies of each other, but for this brief moment, they are ganging up on Jesus. They begin with a compliment of course. Yes, that’s the way to begin. They know: a compliment will truly throw off the person you are about to trap.

But Jesus is too smart for them of course. He turns their question back on them, without ever directly addressing them. Jesus turns to the crowd and asks about the coin. He asks about a coin he, if you notice, does not carry. Nor does he ever touch it. As we know, roman coins were ritually unclean in the Jewish culture. The emperor Caesar was viewed as a god, and that made them unclean to good, pious Jews.

Using the coin as his reference, he lets them have it.

Give to God’s what is God’s, he says.

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

Simple enough.

It seems he is making a clear distinction between the religious and the secular to some extent. He seems to making that distinction between God and government. But…not really.

The real point he is making here can be found when we put it all in perspective. Jesus and every good, loyal Jewish male there on that day was required to pray a prayer every day. Jesus no doubt prayed that prayer that morning, as did every devout Jewish male (and no doubt many Jewish females) that day. The prayer is a simple prayer. It’s called the Shema

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

The Shema is, of course, the summary of the Law. But it is a summary of all belief for a Jew. It essentially renders to God, what is God’s. But if you listen closely to what the Shema says, you realize: Jesus’ statement really isn’t an either/or statement. He’s simply saying that once what is God’s is rendered to God, there is nothing else. There are no other options for those of us who are God’s. For those who love God with all their heart, all their soul and all their might, there is nothing else. Rendering anything to Caesar’s is simply not an option.

For us, it is a matter of realizing we don’t have the option of turning our Christianity on and off. We are always followers of Jesus, in everything we do. Everything we do and say begins and ends in following Jesus. We don’t have the option of being a Christian when it suits us and being secular when it doesn’t. We are a follower of Jesus all the time—in everything we do and every aspect of our lives. And it is important to remind ourselves of this.

There was a very wonderful article I read in this past Summer’s issue of Cowley magazine, put out by the brothers of the Episcopal religious Order of the Society of St. John the Evangelists in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Reverend Whitney Zimmerman wrote in an article in that magazine entitled, “A rule for Eucharistic Living”:

“Eucharistic living involves all aspects of our work, hospitality, community and worship. It is the central act of our lives, beginning, of course, with the actual meal [of the Eucharist].”

I like that very much. Eucharistic living then, as laid out in the Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, is, in a sense, living out the Eucharist we celebrate here on Sunday in everything we do. It means we carry this Eucharist with us long after we have walked away from this altar. It means that, in being fed, we too then go out and share and feed.

Or as Whitney Zimmerman summarizes in her article: “So that I may live the bread and the wine I drink.”

Being a follower of Jesus means that we live the Bread of Jesus and the wine of his blood.

Today, of course, we celebrate Jubilee Sunday. Jubilee Sunday is that Sunday in which we stand up and essentially say, “We are followers of Jesus, committed to Eucharistic living. We must stand up and say no to the forces of injustice and unfairness in the world. Because that it is what it means to be a follower of Jesus.”

At this moment, there are many people who are standing up and essentially saying those same things, with the so-called Occupy protests going on.

This way of protests we are hearing about sweeping this country right now is one, maybe more secular way, of saying the same thing essentially. They are standing up and saying no the forces of injustice and unfairness in our country.

We as Christians do the same things, though for us, our motivating factor is that voice and Spirit of Jesus who stirs us, prompts us and convicts us to stand up against the forces of injustice.

Rendering the things that are God’s to God is not easy. It is easier to render the things to Caesar that are Caesar’s. It is easy to let the establishment stay established. It is easy to be chameleons to some extent, to change ourselves to suit whatever situation may arise so that we can quietly fade into the background, or so we can hold on, for a moment, to the control we have worked to maintain.

But for us, who follow Jesus, doing so is a sell-out. It truly is a turning away from Jesus and all he stands for. It is , essentially, a way in which we turn our Christianity on and off like a switch to suit our own personal needs. It is hard to be a Christian in every aspect of our lives. It hard to love God in all things. It is hard to love our neighbors in all things. It is hard, very often to love even ourselves in all things. But that is what it means to render to God the things that are God’s. It means giving to God all that is God’s. And we belong to God. We are the conduits of that all-loving, all-accepting God. We are the bearers of that radical, all-powerful love of God.

So let us truly render to God what is God’s. Let us live out our lives eucharistically. Let us live fully the Bread we eat at this altar, sharing what we are nourished on here with everyone. Let us fully share this wine we drink here at this altar, quenching the thirst of all those we encounter in our lives. And with Christ dwelling within us in this way, let us be that radical Presence of love and acceptance to all those we encounter.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Fr. Jamie a guest at tonight's Theology Pub at Usher's in Moorhead

Monday, October 10 · 7:30pm - 9:00pm


Location Usher's House
700 1st Ave N
Moorhead, MN

Created By the Project F-M

More Info Hope you can join us tonight for our first conversation of our Guru series. Our conversationalist will be Father Jamie, Priest at St Stephen's Episcopal Church. He'll speak for a few minutes on "Why I go to church? (or maybe, "Why not go to church?"). We'll throw the conversation open to all, of course, and see where it goes from there.

Come hungry, if you like, and order off of Usher's pub fare menu provided exclusively for Theology Pub. Free appetizers also provided.

Enjoy drinks and conversation?
Spiritual but not religious?
Open to questions of being, belief, and belonging?

Then you'll probably LOVE...Theology Pub!

+ + +

The Project F-M and friends gather bi-weekly at Usher’s House (downstairs @ the Hunt Club) for scintillating conversation and delicious beverages.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Thank you from Fr. Jamie

Thank you to everyone who participated in the wonderful surprise celebration of the anniversary of my third year as priest at St. Stephen’s. I was especially moved by many well-wishes I received. It was a wonderful day yesterday.

These past three years have been an incredible time in my life. I am grateful every day to God for being at St. Stephen’s and for being in ministry with people who are so open to God’s calling and direction.

Thank you again for three wonderful years. My hope is that there will be many more productive years ahead.

- peace,
Fr. Jamie+

Sunday, October 2, 2011

16 Pentecost

October 2, 2011

Matthew 21.33-46

+ This past Thursday, we hosted the Moravians here as part of our four-part celebration of Full Communion between the Moravian Church and the Episcopal Church. It was a fun night. Certainly it was no different than any other such evening we have had here at St. Stephen’s.

But it was certainly an eye-opening evening for me personally, as well. We had some very interesting “conversation” and many interchanges going on as part of the so-called “class” following our meal.

What was most interesting to me, however, was the reaction from the Moravians. Sometimes when one stands up here, one can sense reactions. In this case, I actually saw reactions on people’s faces. And some of those poor Moravians were definitely shocked by the fact that we Episcopalians definitely are not shy in sharing our opinions.

It’s sometimes very interesting to see ourselves through other’s eyes. And, in our case, it’s very helpful in our efforts at evangelism. It’s helpful for us to ask ourselves hard questions about ourselves and to take good hard look at what people see and hear when they visit us for the first time.

As I talked with several of the Moravians after the service and later had drinks with others, I made a comment several times.

I said, “Well, let’s just say that we Episcopalians are certainly very zealous in our opinions on occasion.”

Now to be fair, being zealous, of course, is not a bad thing by any means. It’s good to be challenged occasionally (respectfully, of course). It keeps us on our toes. And it humbles us (as long as it humiliate us).

Well, this morning we definitely have one of those parables that challenges us, that keeps us on our toes. It may even make us a bit angry and that definitely forces us to look more closely at ourselves. Let’s face it, it’s a violent story we hear Jesus tells us today. These bad tenants are so devious they are willing to kill to get what they want. And in the end, their violence is turned back upon them. It’s not a warm, fuzzy story that we can take with us and hold close to our hearts. The Church over the years has certainly struggled with this parable because it can be so challenging.

At face value, the story can probably be pretty easily interpreted in this way: The Vineyard owner of course symbolic of God. The Vineyard owner’s son of Jesus. The Vineyard is symbolic of the Kingdom. And the workers in the vineyard who kill the son are symbolic of the religious leaders who will kill Jesus. From this view, we can see the story as a prediction of Jesus’ murder. But there is another interpretation of this story that isn’t so neat and clean and finely put-together. It is in fact an uncomfortable interpretation of this parable. As we hear it, we do find ourselves shaken a bit. It isn’t a story that we want to emulate. I HOPE none of us want to emulate it.

But again, Jesus DOES twist this story around for us. The ones we no doubt find ourselves relating to are not the Vineyard owner or the Vineyard owner’s son, but, in fact, the vineyard workers. We relate to them not because we have murderous intentions in our heart. Not because we inherently bad. But because we sometimes can be just as resolute. We can sometimes be just that zealous. We sometimes will stop at nothing to get what we want. We are sometimes so full of zeal for something that we might occasionally ride roughshod over others. And when we do so, we find that we are not bringing the Kingdom of God about in our midst.

Zeal can be a good thing. We should be full of zeal for God and God’s Kingdom. We too should stop at nothing to gain the Kingdom of God. But zeal taken too far undoes the good we hoped to bring about.

The most frightening aspect of our Gospel story is the fact that Jesus tells us that the kingdom can be taken away from us. It can be given to others. Our zeal for the kingdom has a lot to do with what we gain and what we lose. Our zeal to make this kingdom a reality in our world is what makes the changes in this world.

At the same time, zeal can be a very slippery slope. It can also make us zealots. It can make us fanatics. And this world is too full of fanatics. This world is too full of people who have taken their religion so seriously that they have actually lost touch with it.

This story we hear Jesus today tell us teaches us a lesson about taking our zeal too far. If we become violent in our zeal, we need to expect violence in return. And certainly this is probably the most difficult part of this parable for most of us. For those of us who consider ourselves peace-loving, nonviolent Christians, we cringe when we hear stories of violence in the scriptures. But violence like the kind we hear in today’s parable, or anywhere else in scriptures should not just be thrown out because we find it uncomfortable. It should not be discarded as useless just because we are made uncomfortable by it.

As I have said, again and again, it is not just about any ONE of us, as individuals. It is about us as a whole.

If we look at the kind of violence we find in the Scriptures and use it metaphorically, it could actually be quite useful for us. If we take some of those stories metaphorically, they actually speak to us on a deeper level. If we take the parable of the vineyard workers and apply it honestly to ourselves, we find it does speak to us in a very hard way.

Our zeal for the kingdom of God should drive us. It should move and motivate us. We should be empowered to bring the Kingdom into our midst. But it should not make us into the bad vineyard workers. It should not make into the chief priests and Pharisees who knew, full well, that they were the bad vineyard workers.

A story like this helps us to keep our zeal centered perfectly on God, and not on all the little nitpicky, peripheral stuff. A story like this prevents us. hopefully, from becoming mindless zealots. What does it allow and commend is passion. What it does tell us is that we should be excited for the Kingdom.

True zeal makes us uncomfortable, yes. It makes us restless, It frustrates us. True zeal also energizes us and makes us want to work until we catch a glimpse of that Kingdom in our midst. This is what Jesus is telling us again and again. He is telling us in these parables that make us uncomfortable that the Kingdom of God isn’t just some sweet, cloud-filled place in the next world. He is telling is, very clearly, that is it not just about any ONE of us. It is not about our own personal agendas.

The Kingdom of God is right here, in our midst. And the foundation of that kingdom, the gateway of that Kingdom, the conduit of that Kingdom is always love. Love of God, love of neighbor, healthy love of self. This is what Jesus preached. That is the path Jesus is leading us on. This is the path we walk as we follow after him. And it is a path on which we should be overjoyed to be walking.

So, let us follow this path of Jesus with true and holy zeal. Let us set out to do the work we have to do as workers in the vineyard with love in our heart and love in our actions. And as we do, we will echo the words we heard in today’s Gospel:

“This is what the Lord’s doing; it is amazing in our eyes.”

3 Pentecost

  June 26, 2022   1 Kings 19.15-16,19-21; Galatians 5.1,13-25; .Luke 9:51-62   + I don’t want to toot my own horn, but for any of y...